Prevent Watch

Counter extremism against civil society is having an unintended outcome

prevent protest civil society

When global counter extremism means a person can be an ‘extremist’ for political activity in another country, having to confront Prevent while fleeing for safety in the UK will ratchet up its injustice. But there’s an unintended outcome that persists.

The main challenge for individuals when it comes to Prevent is the manner in which its pre-crime nature renders them unable to access justice because no crime has been committed.

Even in the pre-Prevent interview individuals, including children, are questioned by counter-terrorism officers. This happens within a framework of ‘risk-based’ policy – that is, questions are posed with a lens of suspicion, because the individual is viewed as ‘risky’ or ‘at risk’.

In this, the individual is up against an unjust assumption, but technically he/she has no legal rights, because there isn’t a legal architecture for pre-crime. At the core of policies like Prevent is the assumption of guilt before a crime has happened or indeed has even been conceived.

This violates due process and indeed all principles of natural justice and – unsurprisingly – it can have unintended harmful outcomes for individuals and society.

For people coming to the UK – especially those from Muslim majority countries – Shawcross’s recommendation to “extend Prevent to immigration and asylum and to job centres” will certainly expand the hostile environment they already face.

This is deeply counter-productive and indeed illogical if one is working from a template of ‘shared values’ as Shawcross professes to be doing.

How counter extremism is used in other countries

Those seeking asylum in the UK from other countries may well have been deemed to be ‘extremists’ in their own countries simply due to their work, social media accounts and other public profiles, or even as a result of a personal vendetta.

The terms ‘extremist’ and even ‘terrorist’ are left open for interpretation by different governments, and the UN has conceded that this is deeply problematic, as has Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.

Many countries are now known to be using counter terrorism to clamp down on civil society, as a recent UN report has highlighted.

How will Shawcross’s sweeping and unevidenced recommendation deal with this reality? We are left, unsurprisingly, to guess.

Certainly, if the UK uses foreign governments’ allegations of extremism or terrorism to turn down applications for asylum, then the UK can be held to be in breach of international law in many cases.

Whether they really care is another question, but the vague and variable meaning of the words ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ perhaps find their most distilled and tragic outcome in the immigration and asylum process.

The outcomes of this for people and justice more broadly must be further explored by legal teams and human rights defenders.

Prevent’s poor track record with transparency

Prevent has a track record of being untransparent and in some cases, secretive; the notion and use of ‘secret evidence’ – evidence that neither an accused lawyer can see, nor can the accused see it – has been used alongside Prevent referrals at numerous junctions when individuals have tried to seek justice or transparency.

This assumption that ‘national security’ or ‘government policy’ has greater authority in the courts and in the immigration applications process than basic human rights, is a sad trend in the UK today that can only have harmful consequences for all of us.

We see this approach to Britain’s diverse society trampling on basic rights; this is evident not only in the horrific Illegal Migration bill – where migrants will likely face an even more hostile environment in Rwanda than in the UK – but in other bills such as the ‘anti-BDS’ bill and the nationality and policing bills.

The Prevent strategy is only one pre-crime measure in an extensive ‘preventative’ toolkit that is taking away the rights of individuals and eroding the very democracy upon which the UK is built.

This is because the basic approach of such legislation is to criminalise people before any crime has been committed.

Those who encounter Prevent may only access legal support when they can prove that other rights under UK law have been violated. The new Bill of Rights seeks to eliminate even this legislative protection, under the guise of nationalist conservatism.

The unintended consequence is empowerment

This presents a slippery slope for this country, where things can become more hostile for all of us. Those with the foresight to acknowledge this reality, are duly alarmed.

Widespread criminalisation of dissent and opinions that challenge ‘British values’ – a broad, and undefined term – from diverse communities has had the unintended consequence of empowering and uniting diverse strands of civil society.

We have seen this in our cases at Prevent Watch where more than ever before individuals who contact us are keen to have their stories shared at earlier and earlier stages of their journey.

As a caseworker who has direct contact with about 200 individuals so far, I have noticed a shift in the mindset of people reaching out to us.

Recently, right from the start, people are much more willing to speak about what they have experienced with Prevent; they say they want people to know what has happened to them, to avoid it happening to someone else, and to inspire others to speak up.

I believe that some of this urgency has come from the realization that nobody is immune to Prevent and precrime injustice, whether you are Muslim or not, whether you are a conservative Muslim or a liberal one, or even whether you have actively taken part or received Prevent funding, or not.

Added to this are increasing numbers of legal advocates and human rights groups who are boldly challenging Prevent in their areas of expertise.

We are also assisted by an increasingly aware international community who is thinking more critically about global counter-extremism policy, which is copying Prevent.

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